Campaign Finance Regulation: Freedom for Me and Not for Thee

In a recent column Dahlia Lithwick first mourns the likelihood that Steve Colbert’s new gig on the Late Show will lead him to give up his crusade for campaign finance reform.  She then bemoans the Supreme Court decisions that permit people to spend money to elect candidates of their choice and to donate to all the candidates that reflect their views.

But she never pauses to consider why Stephen Colbert should be privileged to use the influence that comes to him from his position as a televised satirist, while people who work for living cannot use some of their hard-earned cash to proselytize for their views or support their own political champions. Her blindness stems from two facts. First, she herself is part of the media class. Second, that class is largely of one political persuasion —her own left-liberal one. Indeed, when Colbert is not pressing for campaign finance reform he is relentlessly attempting to make those on right look like idiots by playing a buffoonish conservative talk show host.

Restricting independent campaign expenditures and donations increases the power of other forms of political influence. Campaign finance “reform” can thus be understood not as a struggle to protect the democratic interests of the 99 percent, but as an effort to entrench the oligarchy of the information class. Besides the media, the entertainment industry and academia would also gain from restricting campaign expenditures and contributions.  TV networks and movie producers  can try to move opinion and change the culture without facing inquiry from the Federal Election Commission  Professors can press their social views without concern that anyone will tell them to stop.  And Hollywood and the academic world lean at least as far to left as  the mainstream media.

In contrast, the rich are relatively diverse ideologically.  It bears remembering that those with incomes over $250,000 voted for Obama over McCain. Even among the very rich the Koch Brothers have their counterparts in George Soros and Tom Steyer. Perhaps Republicans have some modest advantages over Democrats among the Forbes 400, but it looks like parity compared to the partisan disparities in the media, academia, and the entertainment industry.

Some might reply that the information class is disinterested and that people with money are not. But that claim would also reveal a deep blindness. To take one example, an academic enjoys much compensation from the tenure protections and autonomy  afforded by his or her profession. Because these perquisites are not taxed, academics are likely less sensitive to taxes than those whose compensation may take a wholly pecuniary form. More worryingly, the information class, which engages in no material production, is not as aware of great advantages of market induced progress for everyone, including the poor, and the danger that overregulation poses.

Different groups of people tend to have different views depending on their style of life and their means of supporting themselves.  The information class is not uniquely suited to pursue the public interest, as in fact their general enthusiasm on behalf of restricting campaign expenditures and donations  demonstrates.  That regulation constrains the opposition to their predominantly left-liberal views and magnifies their political influence.